Corporate Social Responsibility Communication

Written by

Scott Deitz

Partner

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Written by

Casey Hernandez

Partner

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05.20.24

Traditionally, CEOs want to stay away from Washington to avoid politics. Increasingly, politics is coming to them. Whether it’s investors, consumers or employees, more and more companies are being pressed to take ideological or provocative positions on social or cultural issues by their key stakeholders. Successfully navigating the potential threats associated with both action and inaction will ensure mounting pressure doesn’t lead to a communication landmine.

Successfully communicating a company’s point of view on social issues can be a labyrinth of competing dynamics. Brands must carefully consider their path forward facing uncertain outcomes, varying opinions and shifting public perceptions.

More than ever, we hear the question: Should my company even take a stand on social issues, what should that look like, and how do we effectively communicate with our most important stakeholders?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Every company must weigh different factors.  Here are some of the aspects of the decision worth giving careful consideration:

Balancing long-term business strategy: Taking a stand on a social issue can pose financial risks to a company or lead to negative publicity. Long-term implications of taking a stand on a social issue must be factored into any decision. Will this issue be relevant in the future? Does this position align with its Purpose, Mission and Values?

Authenticity & relevancy: Messaging and actions must be genuine and stand the test of time. Companies risk being perceived as opportunistic if their stance appears to be fueled solely by marketing and PR motives. Companies who take stands on issues outside of their immediate industry or outside of the interests of their direct stakeholders can be viewed as performative.

Reputation and brand image: Consider how taking a stand on a social issue will impact how people view your company. While taking a stand may resonate positively with certain stakeholders, it could also alienate others.

Stakeholder expectations: Balance the interests of customers consumers, employees, investors and the community your company serves, as public opinions on social issues will vary widely among different audiences.

Operational impact: Assess how taking a stand on a social issue will impact employee engagement, productivity and retention as well as external third-party and , supply chain relationships. There may be logistical challenges or disruptions associated with making changes to align with the company’s stand.

Global context: Is the decision impacted by increased geopolitical instability or globalization? What is acceptable in one geography may be controversial in another.

Seven Letter’s Insight team has assessed various sources of credible research and determined several key truths[1]:

  • When CEOs discuss social issues, people are paying attention, analysis of readership of articles written by CEOs shows that social issues are the second most read topic;
  • There is a distinct difference between how people view “political issues” and “social issues”;
  • Americans’ appetite for businesses to take a stand on current events has decreased over the past year;
  • Employees feel supported when their company takes a stand, but do not agree that companies should take a stand in general; and
  • Most believe that CEOs should only take stands on issues that are directly related to their business or aligned with their values.

At Seven Letter, we believe that successfully communicating a company’s position on a social matter requires four fundamental actions:

  1. Consider the messenger: Company voice vs CEO voice can make a big difference. In some cases, companies may choose to speak from the brand externally, but have a CEO share something internal, or not at all. Perhaps from a geographic perspective, it makes more sense for a regional president or executive to speak to a specific region or market, as opposed to using the CEO as the spokesperson;
  • Ensure clarity and transparency: Articulate the reasons and rationale behind the decision to take a stance, including how it directly aligns with the company’s Purpose, Mission, Values and long-term business objectives;
  • Maintain engagement and dialogue: Engage with key stakeholders fostering open communication about the issue, while listening to others’ perspectives, concerns and, when appropriate, acknowledge diverse view points; and
  • Follow through: Consistency in communication and action is key to maintaining credibility and trust when taking a stand on a social issue. It’s important to communicate the company’s commitment consistently across all communication channels and platforms, including internal and external messaging.

By identifying the right messenger, embracing clarity and transparency, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and demonstrating unwavering consistency, companies can navigate the maze of social issues with integrity and purpose, ensuring that their voices are heard and their values upheld, while their balance sheets are supported in an ever-evolving landscape.

[1] Sources: Memo & AXIOS, The Harris Poll, Bentley-Gallup Business in Society study, Stagwell Weekly Consumer Sentiment Survey, Morning Consult Research Intelligence 2024 Election Playbook,